Top 100 Myths and other Fables

By Roberta Lamb & Mark Jones

In October 2009, Mediacorp listed Queen’s among the top 100 Employers in Canada, citing its “progressive,” “family-friendly” practices. “It is extremely rewarding,” commented Rod Morrison, VP-Human Resources, “to be acknowledged nationwide for the practices and policies that support our people” (Gazette, 13 Oct. 2009).

But how did Queen’s earn this award? It was not by altruism or concern for employees’ welfare on the part of Queen’s Human Resources. QUFA and other unions negotiated these policies through legally binding collective agreements. Queen’s University’s eligibility for this prestigious award had to be fought for by unions piece by piece, through collective bargaining.

THE LIST

The reasons identified by Mediacorp[1] for selecting Queen’s University as a “top 100” employer read like a list of QUFA’s and other campus unions’ bargaining points from the past fifteen years. In fact, before Queen’s faculty unionized in 1995-1996, they enjoyed none of the conditions across the board. Professors negotiated individually, and although Senate policies existed, these were not applied consistently and fairly. QUFA functioned only as an association, as QUSA does now, without collective or legal power to achieve equity, transparency, and fair treatment. The Principal, Vice-Principal, Deans, and Human Resources therefore acted unilaterally. If they saw reason to grant an individual or a group benefit, they might do so. More than once, QUFA’s submissions were disregarded, the Vice-Principal tossing our papers in the air and telling us to “Come back when you’ve got the right answer.” The imposed results were called “agreements,” and we may have voted consent to them, but the options for a non-unionized association were, and are, limited.

Here is the Mediacorp list released to the Queen’s University community:

  • helps employees with a young children with an offsite daycare subsidy (to $2000 per child, per year)
  • provides maternity leave top-up benefits to employees who are new mothers (to 100% of salary for 20 weeks)
  • pays parental leave top-up benefits to employees who are new fathers or adoptive parents (to 100% of salary for 15 weeks)
  • new employees receive three weeks of paid vacation after their first year, in addition to a five-day shutdown during the Christmas holidays
  • supports a variety of flexible work options, including variable scheduling, telecommuting, reduced hours during the summer, and a 35-hour work week (with full pay)
  • manages a self-funded leave of absence program, so employees can still receive a paycheque during their time away.[2]

Let us review these individually. Let us also include some items that the Queen’s News Centre did not report.

Day Care Subsidy:

This benefit was negotiated in the second Collective Agreement between QUFA and Queen’s University (1999-2002). Once one union negotiates a benefit, it is often made available for other employees.

Maternity Leave and Top-up Benefits:

Before QUFA unionized, women professors were afraid to take any maternity leave at all. They were told that taking the federally allowed leave would indicate that they were not serious scholars and would have a negative impact on tenure decisions. As a result, professors who became mothers before 1997 did not take leave or took only a couple of weeks. This is documented in QUFA files. The feminist negotiators on the first QUFA bargaining team argued persuasively that not only should the federal maternity leave be available without penalty but the University should top-up benefits to full salary for 20 weeks. Our first Collective Agreement (1997-1999) provided that the tenure clock could be stopped for the year of maternity leave so that professors who were mothers would have equitable opportunities to achieve tenure.

Parental Leave and Adoptive Leave:

These were negotiated in the first QUFA-University Collective Agreement.  QUFA argued that the same benefits granted to birth mothers must be extended to fathers and adoptive parents as well.

Flexible Work Options:

Some of these are inherent in the nature of a professor’s work, and therefore did not need to be negotiated.  On the other hand, as the University has moved away from collegial self-management and toward more specialized administration, it has become necessary to negotiate protections for flexible work options into collective agreements. Over the years QUFA has therefore negotiated with the University the rights of faculty to have matters such child-care responsibilities and interurban commuting factored into the annual computerized construction of course timetables.

Self-funded leave of absence:

This applies more to staff than to professors, since academic leaves have their own logic; nevertheless, provisions for academic leaves and negotiated leaves have been written into every QUFA-University Collective Agreement, and this has made a difference for other employee groups.  QUFA engages in flagship bargaining—benefits negotiated by QUFA with the University subsequently find their way into other union contracts and non-union “agreements.” The general support for flexibility and variety in leaves found within QUFA-University Collective Agreements has resulted in better benefits for other employees.

Holiday shutdown and paid vacation:

Vacation time has been Senate policy since 1983. But sick-leave and long-term disability benefits have been won and regulated by collective bargaining. Before QUFA organized as a union, serious illness was accommodated on the basis of an individual’s standing with an administrator. Most people did not have sick leave. Horror-stories regarding sick leave, long-term disability, and return-to-work fill QUFA’s historical files.

THE PROCESS

Queen’s designation as a Top-100 Employer is, to some degree, a testimony to health in our workplace. But let us be clear about the real source and meaning of the rating.  The Top 100 is a media event used to promote jobs. Eluta.ca is a searchable database of jobs available. And Queen’s University is one of its clients:  at present, for instance, five Queen’s University jobs are listed with Eluta.ca:  Program assistant in the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program, Financial reporting officer, ESL Instructor, Senior epidemiologist, and GIS technician.  Moreover, eligibility for Top 100 Status is not considered by independent nomination or determined by scientific measurement:  corporations apply to be awarded Top 100 status, and it appears that they pay a fee to do so. Our Human Resources office provides the answers to the Mediacorp survey. The process provides that the employer may allow the employees to answer a survey, but this is not required. In fact, the survey can be withheld from the public, not considered in the application, and remain with the employer, should the employer decide it wants the information to remain confidential. Based on the answers supplied by Human Resources, Mediacorp ranks the applicants. Basically, Queen’s University is ranked according to what Human Resources wants to sell to the public.

THE MARKS

Let’s consider what the Mediacorp rankings say about the categories[3]: Physical Workplace, Work Atmosphere & Communications, Financial Benefits & Compensation, Health & Family-Friendly Benefits, Vacation & Personal Time-Off, Employment Engagement, Training & Skills Development, and Community Involvement.

Physical Workplace = A+

Location, location, location gives Queen’s high marks for proximity to downtown and Lake Ontario. Did you know that we have secure bicycle parking and walking trails? The new Queen’s Centre is a plus, with its subsidized memberships. (And while use of the old PEC was free for employees, we must now pay commercial rates to use the Queen’s Centre.) Our on-campus Tim Horton’s, Starbuck’s, University Club, and other cafeterias add to the exceptional quality of the physical workplace.

Work Atmosphere & Communications = B+

The assessment speaks for itself:  “Queen’s University’s work atmosphere is rated as very good. Across the university, employees enjoy business casual dress; casual dress Fridays; can listen to music while working; can bring pets to work when needed; organized social events. Every year, the university hosts a staff appreciation day and Principal’s Holiday Reception during the Christmas season and long-service celebrations to recognize long-serving and retiring employees. Queen’s keeps employees informed and gathers feedback through a company newsletter; email suggestion box.”

Financial Benefits & Compensation = B

Again, a direct quotation:  “Queen’s University’s financial benefits are rated as average. To keep salaries competitive the company participates in outside salary surveys every 12 months. Individual salaries are reviewed every 12 months. Queen’s also provides a unique hybrid pension plan (includes both a guaranteed minimum benefit with the opportunity to enjoy the rewards of strong investment performance of the plan); life & disability insurance; discounted home mortgages.”

Health & Family-Friendly Benefits = A

Within this category and those for compensation and personal time-off—altogether comprising vacation, salary, and benefits—collective bargaining has made the difference.  Incidentally, Queen’s University takes credit in this category for providing summer camp programs for children (we thought these were run by the AMS, ASUS and other student clubs).

Vacation & Personal Time-Off = B+

For the advances we have made in vacation and personal time-off, thank collective bargaining.

Employment Engagement = B

Did you know that we have the ability to “provide confidential feedback on [our] manager’s performance”? Let’s get out those rating forms for the administrators! Did you know that “Queen’s University hires an outside consultant to conduct confidential employee satisfaction and engagement surveys”? We complete these every 2 years.  Really! That’s what it says!

Training & Skills Development = A

Tuition subsidies, professional accreditation subsidies, in-house training programs, Queen’s tuition support. These benefits have been gained through collective bargaining and then extended.

Community Involvement = B

This entry is about charity support, especially United Way. “Reaching-out beyond the community, one university professor also applied his expertise in social and community work to lead a team to help establish social care centres in Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami. The university’s cancer researcher also participates in the annual Motorcycle Ride for Dad.” For these observations credit is due not to the employer but to the employees.

Do you recognize in these ratings and rationales the Queen’s University that employs you?


[1] http://www.eluta.ca/top-employer-queens-university-department-of-human-resources, accessed 17 March 2010.

[2] ibid.

[3] These category titles and configurations are Mediacorp’s.

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